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Brian Murphy: Royce Lewis is no ordinary Joe

Joe Mauer gave words of encouragement to Royce Lewis, who slugged two homers to help the Twins end a wicked playoff losing streak.

The greatest day of Royce Lewis’s baseball life began after learning he would be included on the Twins’ playoff roster despite a wonky hamstring that caused Minnesota to collectively wince every time the franchise sensation climbed the dugout steps.

He also received a text message before Game 1 of the wild card series against Toronto that encouraged him to embrace the emotion of the moment from Joe Mauer of all guys, the master of understated restraint.

“Telling me just take it in,” Lewis recounted. “He said that’s one thing he would do is take it in and don’t regret the moment that you’re in.”

So, there was Lewis digging in for his first October at bat Tuesday afternoon at Target Field. A 360-degree scan of the roaring crowd, followed by a satisfactory nod to Mauer’s moment and a giant leap into baseball stardom.

Why not bask in the postseason baptism?


Lewis blowtorched Blue Jays starter Kevin Gausman for two home runs and accounted for all his team’s offense in a 3-1 opening victory that took forlorn Twins fans for a cathartic ride 19 years in the making.

Lewis ripped a Gausman fastball into the left-field bleachers for a two-run shot in the first inning. Lewis provided an encore in the third with an opposite-field solo shot, rounding the bases with unbridled passion and joy that evoked memories of another once-in-a-lifetime talent.

No Twins player has been this electrifying this soon on and off the field since Kirby Puckett roamed center field as the pied piper of the Metrodome two generations ago. Puckett is a legend with a statue in the plaza because he was clutch in the field and at the plate in two World Series, carrying teammates to championship glory with him.

Lewis, the 2017 No. 1 overall draft choice, hit enough grand slams and flashed enough aw-shucks smiles during the regular season to lift Minnesota out of the doldrums while teasing greatness.

He delivered when it mattered most, single-handedly exorcising an ungodly 18-game playoff losing skid and injecting the faithful with a thousand cc’s of sunshine on a mostly cloudy day.

“It brought that electricity into my body,” Lewis said. “I felt different. My heart was beating -- it was the most nervous game, exciting game I’ve ever played in my life. It was so much fun.”

October baseball is supposed to be fun, but it has been nightmarish for Minnesota since Johan Santana won Game 1 of the 2004 ALDS at old Yankee Stadium.

Fitting that this year’s Game 1 winner, Pablo Lopez, wore a Santana jersey arriving at the ballpark to honor his boyhood idol growing up in their native Venezuela.

“Some people believe in fate, some people believe that the things we do today drive what we do tomorrow,” Lopez said. “But sometimes things line up too perfectly to pass up on those opportunities.

“I was just happy that I was able to, for the most part, secure my plan, do my part, and do the best I could to, like, put the team in the best position to win.”

Lopez scattered five hits and yielded Toronto’s only run before ceding the game to relievers Louie Varland, Caleb Thielbar, Griffin Jax and Jhoan Duran, who only allowed two hitters to reach base in 3 1/3 combined innings.

Meanwhile, the Twins defense was spectacular.

Center fielder Michael Taylor dove head-first to deny Alejandro Kirk a base hit in the second inning and climbed the wall to take away a potential run-scoring drive by Matt Chapman with two outs, two aboard and a run already in for the Blue Jays in the sixth after Varland replaced Lopez.


In the fourth, with Bo Bichette on second, Kevin Kiermaier slithered a grounder through Jorge Polanco. Bichette did not break stride roaring home. But shortstop Carlos Correa snagged the wayward ball before it made it into left field and fired a bullet that catcher Ryan Jeffers snagged to nail Bichette at the plate.

“Those things flip the game completely on its head,” said Twins manager Rocco Baldelli. “Michael Taylor did that for us and flipped the game in our favor because of the way he patrolled center field.

“The play that Carlos Correa made, that should be shown everywhere over and over again. Getting there, getting down -- those are awkward plays. You never practice that play ever.”

Oct 3, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Twins catcher Ryan Jeffers (27) tags out Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette (11) in the fourth inning during game one of the Wildcard series for the 2023 MLB playoffs at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

But the loudest curtain calls were for Lewis, who hit .308 and slugged 15 homers – including four grand slams in an 18-game span – in only 58 games after returning from ACL surgery.

Lewis became the first Twins player to smack home runs in his first two playoff at bats since Gary Gaetti took Detroit’s Doyle Alexander deep twice in Game 1 of the 1987 American League Championship Series. And only the third in MLB history, joining Evan Longoria, who did it for Tampa Bay in 2008.

Baldelli said he was “fairly confident” leaving the ballpark Monday that Lewis would be in the lineup at DH for Game 1. And Lewis responded like a kid who was told he could leave school for the day at 9 a.m.

He was among the rare Twins player to show any emotion during pregame introductions, raising both hands to acknowledge the crowd and pirouetting on his way to the first-base line. Serious injuries already have robbed Lewis of two seasons, and he wasn’t going to bury his recent good fortune with hat tip stoicism.

“It was a blessing to play today; that atmosphere was electric,” he said.

Ding-dong, the wicked skid is dead.